Learning to water ski is something to which you want to bring a video camera, because no one nails it right out of the gates. Keep those videos so you can laugh at them later, when you’ve progressed a little.

But seriously, the usual progression for water skiing is to learn using a pair of skis, then dropping one so you can slalom and then doing deep-water starts with one ski, so you don’t have to go back and chase after the ski you left behind. I’ve never heard of one getting stolen or disappearing, but if you’re skiing on a river, it’s not going to stay where you left it.

man learning how to water ski

Learning to water ski starts with the right equipment. Photo: Marcus Löfvenberg

The basic equipment for waterskiing

Some fundamental information includes having the basic equipment: a serviceable pair of skis, a good ski rope, a personal flotation vest and, well, a boat.

The skis usually have sliding bindings. Shove your feet in as far as they’ll go and then slide the heel bindings forward so that they’re tight to the point before they become uncomfortable. A ski rope is a special piece of equipment, because it has an elasticity to it that’s helpful and necessary.

Now, for the boat. We all see these beautiful tow boats out on the water, but not everyone gets to learn to ski behind them. A great many people have to learn behind a sterndrive- or an outboard-powered runabout. Something to consider if you will be skiing is the boat’s propeller. Most of them are fitted with a propeller geared toward top-end speed, but pulling a skier out of the water demands excellent low-end torque. If your runabout is equipped with, say, a 26-inch pitch propeller, consider pitching down to a 24 when using the boat for skiing.

Your first time on skis

OK, so now you’ve got the equipment and you’re ready to make your first attempt with the video camera rolling. Not so fast. A few drills on the dock can help create the muscle memory that’s so crucial to a deep-water start.

Mimic the crouched position of a deep-water start on the dock, holding the rope in your outstretched arms. Your knees are bent and your head is upright and facing forward. In the water, your ankles will be bent forward, angling the skis forward as a result.

Have a friend pull the rope. The key to the drill is to let the person pull you up, because when you’re in the water, the critical element is to let the boat pull you up out of the water. Focus on keeping your knees together and your arms outside your knees. This will become more critical when you’re in the water. One key mistake rookies make is to try to stand up too early. That puts all the pressure on you. Let the boat do the work.

In the water, you want to recreate the position you learned on the dock. Your knees are tucked into your chest and together with your arms are around the outside of your knees. When you’re aligned and comfortable, tell the driver to “hit it.” A good rule of thumb is that you don’t attempt to stand up until the back of the skis are on top of the water. Remember, always keep your weight centered.

Once you’re up, keep your weight centered, with your knees bent, back and arms straight, but not locked out. If you’re not used to skiing or a cross-fit enthusiast, you likely will be a special kind of sore the next day.

Most paired skis come with a little strap behind one of the bindings. That binding is for your back foot when slalom skiing. Once you get good enough on tandems, you can set up your weak foot with a loose binding so you can drop it somewhere and slip your weak foot behind your lead foot. Which foot is your lead foot? There are a couple of ways to find out. Which foot do you put in your pants first? Another test is to close your eyes and have someone push you from behind. The foot you put forward to stop yourself from falling is your lead foot, and the one that takes the ski with two bindings.

How to waterski: slalom

Once you've mastered the basics you can move on to slalom skiing.

Making progress

Once you’re comfortable enough to try a deep-water start on a slalom ski, break out the video camera because it’s a little like starting all over again. Probably the best piece of equipment that can help newbies start on one ski is the training rope, which is built with a larger “V” at the handle. You put the V over the tip of your ski and the rope helps keep the ski pointed forward when doing a deep-water start. If you get out of alignment trying to do a deep-water start on a slalom ski — and it likely will happen — the boat will pull you sideways and you won’t “get up.”

And that will teach you a valuable lesson: If you get out of shape, whether it’s during a start or while you’re up and running, let go of the rope. People being people, we think, “I got this. I can save it.” Well, you can’t, so don’t. Let go of the rope, have the boat circle around and try it again. And again. And again.

If you're interested in wakeboarding, read about how to do that here.

Written by: Brett Becker
Brett Becker is a freelance writer and photographer who has covered the marine industry for 15 years. In addition to covering the ski boat and runabout markets for Boats.com, he regularly writes and shoots for BoatTrader.com. Based in Ventura, Calif., Becker holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s in mass communication from the University of Central Florida in Orlando.